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Interview with NYC Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler - 9/11 Then And Now

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Edward Skyler has worked for Mayor Michael Bloomberg since before his election, and was actively campaigning for the candidate when the 9/11 attacks took place.

We discussed his experiences on 9/11, his goal to provide quality health care for all recovery workers, and the importance of public service in American communities. As part of commemorating September 11 as a National Day of Service, Causecast and The Huffington Post are pleased to present our interview with Edward Skyler.

On 9/11 and your experiences, where were you and can you talk a little bit about what that day was like?

Skyler: It was the day of the mayoral primary, so the mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg had voted on I think 81st or 82nd street and we walked (it was early in the morning, probably 7:30, quarter to 8), downtown from the upper east side to the campaign headquarters, which was I think on 56th street in 2001. Basically, right about the time I walked up to my desk, we always had the TV on, and saw the first images of the Trade Center on fire, and we obviously, like the rest of the world, were glued to our televisions the whole day. Obviously, campaigning was going to be put on hold for the foreseeable future. The primary election was quickly canceled and rescheduled for two weeks later.

Obviously, you were in the middle of a political campaign. Moving forward, did you feel like a different focus would have to be placed on public service, or were you just in the mode that you had to defer to the president and the international community?

Skyler: Well, we didn't think it would be appropriate, as he was not an elected official, for him to do anything public, so whatever efforts he undertook, he did pretty discretely. We opened up our office building to recovery workers and rescue workers and responders and we gave them food and gave them a place to rest, but we didn't do anything on the campaign end until after the primary. I just remember thinking that, after the attack, I felt I very much wanted to see him win. I very much wanted to work for the city the way I had five years before and be part of a team that would help the city recover.

So, in those days and weeks after 9/11, you must have seen a lot and explored the city as you were campaigning. Is there a story of service or heroism that stands out in your mind?

Skyler: I think that one of the parts of any type of disaster like this, who flies under the radar are sadly the medical examiner's office. They don't get the same accolades that police officers and firefighters get, since they're out doing the actual rescuing. But, they handle the very difficult part of these situations very admirably and humanely and with a lot of dedication of skill. They work 24/7 and their mission is to unite loved ones with those who they lost. They're still, as an example of their dedication, doing that eight years later. They still have material that they sift through to see if there are any bone fragments that they can get DNA from. I've had the privilege of working with them through the years. I think that they - its a sad sign of an already sad story, but one that should be recognized.

As part of the administration, you've been active in exploring the long term health impacts of 9/11. So, it's eight years later. What still needs to be done to address the effects of that day and why hasn't more attention been paid to those who are still suffering and may not have received the treatment they need?

Skyler: I think what has to happen is federal government at every level needs to recognize that the attack - this was an attack not just on a New York City but on the country and its response is a national obligation. And, the city has invested a lot into the efforts to help those who have become ill but it is well outside the city's means to do truly comprehensive treatment programs. It's also not feasible or efficient because not everybody lives in New York City. There are people from almost every state in the union who are affected by this, so this is not New York City's - New York City isn't the best entity to spearhead that even if it had the money, which it doesn't. We've had readership in the Congress by several members of the New York delegation. The Bush Administration never seemed to be responsive to the need but we're hopeful with the reappointment of John Howard of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that there will be recognition on the federal government's level that there are people here that still need help.

You said that providing care for 9/11 workers is a national issue, and you've been pretty firm on that over the last few years. So, in light of the recent debate concerning health care reform, do you think New Yorkers and especially those who lived in Manhattan during 9/11 might have a different perspective on public health than a lot of people in other parts of the country?

Skyler: I don't know if their perspective would be different, because I don't see it so much as a public health issue as much as a response to a disaster. Just the way the federal government provides funds for the clean-up and the economic recovery, they should also supply assistance for people's physical health and allow and support that recovery whether it's mental health or physical health. So, I don't see it so much as part of the health care debate. This is an issue that shouldn't be an issue, frankly.

I don't know how you felt about public service and volunteerism before 9/11, but do you feel like your perspective on volunteerism and giving has changed since that day?

Skyler: I think the perspective for me that's changed is that in this day and age, normalcy can be shattered within seconds and become an elusive concept. I think that for those of us that work at this level, any day that goes by that nothing happens is a good day.

What are the major issues that are still affecting New Yorkers after 9/11 and what can our readers anywhere across the country do to continue to support these efforts?

Skyler: Well, I think the first thing they can do is support health care and the efforts to get treatment for those who are physically hurt by the attacks and sickened by the attacks. I think the second thing is that people have to pressure their public officials so they don't become complacent. We've had roughly the same time from the first attack on the World Trade Center to the second attack on the World Trade Center as we've had from the second attack to today. We're dealing with a very patient enemy and they are hell bent on attacking this country again. So I think we need to make sure that those who are charged with protecting us don't become complacent and believe that this threat has gone away, because it hasn't. And that type of complacency can invite an attack and put people at risk.

Based on that, do you feel like, eight years on, people are reverting to what was referred to during the Bush Administration as a pre-9/11 mindset? Just as after the 1993 attacks it wasn't very much talked about that this kind of attack could take place.

Skyler: I can't gauge what the public sentiment is. I can just tell you that whatever the public sentiment is, the leaders in government need to make sure that they don't become complacent, they don't allow complacency to set in. A lot of us don't believe the threat has gone away. The job of government is to lead, not just to respond to what public opinion is. It's really government's job to assess the threat and make sure the country's protected regardless of whether people feel more comfortable than they did previously.

So, what do you plan on doing on September 11 this year?

Skyler: I've generally gone to the ceremony at Ground Zero and I'll either be there or in the office or some combination of both. One of the areas where we've answered President Obama's call to service, our service initiative here is, we have an emergency preparedness program. The key to that is teaching people CPR, people volunteer for the Red Cross, encouraging people to come up with their own disaster planning, making sure that kids in school are educated, how to prepare for eventualities that could disrupt their lives and routines. So, that's one of the things that we are pushing, as one of the six areas that the volunteer initiative is focusing on.

So you'll be discussing the national day of service that was planned for the end of the United We Serve campaign. Is there anything else you're asking people in the city to do?

Skyler: Well, September is National Preparedness Month, and I met with Sec. [Janet] Napolitano last week. We're urging people to be ready. It doesn't need to be a terrorist attack. It could be a natural disaster. It could be severe weather, it could be a water main break, it could be a building collapse, it could be all types of eventualities that could befall a city of this size. People need to have an emergency plan, make sure their families have an emergency plan, to be prepared.

This interview posted originally on Causecast.org